CLEVELAND, Ohio – Authorities have seized an estimated $12.3 million in marijuana plants across Ohio in the beginning weeks of the late summer hunt for the illicit crop.
The state’s eradication program, funded by about $500,000 in a federal grant, has swept through the rural southeast corner, where growers in Athens and Meigs counties have thrived for years.
Using helicopters, state drug agents and local police spot the plants and then tell officers in trucks and four-wheelers where to find the plots. Once there, officers uproot the plants.
This year, authorities have cut the stalks of 12,341 plants in the first weeks of the marijuana harvest season, according to figures released Thursday by Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine’s office. That’s more than half of the 20,470 plants seized across Ohio last year.
Last year marked a small fraction of the marijuana seized in 2010, when officers nabbed more than 105,000 plants, one of the largest years on record. Law enforcement officials estimate each plant’s value at $1,000.
While the numbers rise and dip over the years, authorities say that for every plant nabbed before a grower’s harvest, dozens more thrive.
And that leaves some to question the program, saying the money could be better used in the fight against other forms of crime.
“Eradication programs are absolutely useless,” said Gary Potter, a criminal justice professor at Eastern Kentucky University. “That’s because marijuana plots are so much smaller than when the programs began in the 1970s.
“That’s when people planted large amounts of marijuana. Today, they plant it in much smaller plots. If officers get something, it is usually inferior stuff, like ditch weed. To me, there isn’t much difference between 12,000 marijuana plants and 12,000 dandelions.”
The eradication program “has absolutely no impact on the marijuana market because, even if they get something (in a field), there is so much of it out there on the market.”
Keller Blackburn disagrees.
Blackburn, the Athens County prosecutor, said 95 percent of crime in his rural county is linked to drugs. He said doing anything to reduce that amount is a huge plus.
He said several robberies in the county last year stemmed from marijuana.
“Any time we can eliminate any marijuana plants from hitting the streets, it’s a good thing,” Blackburn said.
Already this summer, state authorities seized 1,427 plants from Athens County and 1,098 from Meigs, the epicenter of the state’s pot crop. Mahoning County followed with 998 plants seized, and rural Scioto County had 964 plants yanked.
Cuyahoga County had 729, which is unusually high for an urban county. Authorities in Montgomery County found 31 plants, while those in Hamilton County pulled just 14.
How much is seized often is determined by how much time authorities have to fly over specific places in the county, as well as the amount of information from informants.
The attorney general’s office reported that last year most of the grant’s funding — $373,428 — went to pay for the maintenance of the helicopters. Over the years, tens of thousands of dollars also went for overtime.
The grant keeps the program going. In fact, the sound of a helicopter in rural Ohio announces a new round of the decades-long battle between police and growers.
No longer do growers just stash plants in the middle of a cornfield. They use advanced watering systems, traps and plots in woods. And since most of the plants are miles away from homes or businesses, it is impossible to make any arrests. And authorities said staking out a plot is nearly impossible.
In rural Ohio, authorities are seeing people barter marijuana for heroin or pain pills, exacerbating the state’s drug woes.
“It’s a problem,” said Keith Wood, the Meigs County sheriff, of marijuana. “It’s a big industry, and there’s a lot of money in it.”